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Power of the word

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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INTERVIEW Bestselling novelist Wilbur Smith tells SHONALI MUTHALALY how excited he is about his forthcoming five-city India tour, organised to promote his latest novel “Those In Peril”

H e was drawn to India by a story. Which seems appropriate. After all, Wilbur Smith is one of the world's most popular storytellers. “I first visited about 20 years ago…and to tell you the truth, it was because I had read ‘The Far Pavilions.'” (This epic novel by M.M. Kaye is built around 19th-Century British-Indian history). After that India drew him back repeatedly. “The last time I visited was just three or four months ago. We were in Mumbai, after which we saw the Taj, and then went to Nepal.”

This time, Wilbur Smith is in India for his first official book tour. Hosted by Landmark, the writer will be travelling across five Indian cities to promote his latest novel “Those In Peril.” In a telephone interview from Cape Town, South Africa, he talks of how India fascinates him. “It's so big, and so different. You go around the corner and it all changes again.” Since he's only been in the country on ‘fun' trips so far, he's now looking forward to meeting his readers. “They are like family I've never met. They are my life, my readers. I love to write, but having written, I love to have it read. There is nothing worse than telling a story that no one is listening to.”

Tasting success

Born in 1933 in Northern Rhodesia, which is now Zambia, Central Africa, Smith grew up on a cattle ranch, with a strict Victorian father, an artistic book-loving mother, and a grandfather who was a gifted and inspiring storyteller. He started his career as a journalist, and was then bullied into becoming a tax accountant by his determinedly practical father. Broke but desperate to write, he completed his first novel in his early twenties only to have it rejected. Then, in 1964, his first successful novel “When The Lion Feeds” was published. Today, he's sold approximately 120 million novels all over the world. “Two days ago, my attorney said, ‘I have all your books. Can I have them signed?' Then he appeared with two big wheely suitcases filled with books!” Smith was startled. “I said, did I really write all these? My attorney replied, ‘Yes! You have been a busy little devil!”

As for his first unsuccessful novel, he's let it go. “It's disappeared in the sands of time. I look upon that as my trial piece. I made a lot of mistakes, and I learned a lot from it. It kept my feet on the ladder.” Success, he says, is never easy. “It is tough to break in. There are so many good writers who are never going to find publishers. Now, more and more publishers like to bet on horses that have already won races.” He adds, “Books are as individual as people. There are no rules… But it's not enough to have talent. You also need luck. And you have to have people that believe in you.”

That's partly why he's so sentimental about his first novel, “When the Lion Feeds.” “It's my first baby. I've got 33 children,” he laughs, referring to his books. “People ask me which my favourite is, and I know some are prettier than the others. With so many books it's impossible for all to be the same standard. But in the end, it's the eldest I favour.” Ironically, each series appeals to very different sets of readers. “After the Courtney novels, the Egyptian books created a whole new following. Generally, the people who like the Egyptian novels are not so keen on the African series.”

As technology gets faster, Smith says he's had to change his methods of work and communication. “Sometimes I feel like I am one of the workers on the pyramids, chiselling hieroglyphics on the walls with a stone and hammer,” he says, adding “I think it's the way of the future. If you have any sense at all, you go with the flow. I've got Facebook, I've got a website. I haven't a Kindle yet, but I know my wife's going to give me one soon.” The computer has, however, made writing much easier. “My first five books — I wrote them all in long hand. Not even on a typewriter. I couldn't type! The computer is such a wonderful way of being able to write. I do minimal correction. I write it as it comes to my head, then rewrite.”

His latest work is a story about pirates, inspired by an island home he had in the Seychelles, in the stretch of the Indian Ocean between Africa and India. “That was the epicentre of all the piracy in the Indian Ocean… I did my research from being in actual contact with pirates. They used to come to Mahe to re-provision. It didn't say ‘I am a pirate' on their T shirts, but it was pretty obvious who they were.” Smith's not overly enamoured with the romantic fiction about pirates. “They are just as romantic as bank robbers. They are criminals. They are outside the law. We shouldn't condone them in any way.”

Although Smith's latest novel “Those In Peril” is contemporary, a lot of his work is based in the 16th and the 17th Centuries. “History fascinates me. People who say they are not interested in history are not interested in themselves. We are creations of history.” He adds, “‘Those In Peril' is set in today's world. ‘The River God' is set 6,000 years ago. All that area between I see as my turf!”



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